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US Presidential Debates Measured by Twitter

Using Twitter a recently published IMC study shows the complex collective entrainment to the 2012 US presidential debates at different time-scales: people react almost in real time to conflict and turn-taking, but take much longer to process contents.

Romney and Obama in 2012 Presidential Debate

Fireflies and Humans

Social media - such as Twitter - provide an unprecedented arena for human interactions enabling the massive coordination of attention and social actions. Using Twitter a recently published IMC study shows the complex collective entrainment to the 2012 US presidential debates at different time-scales: people react almost in real time to conflict and turn-taking, but take much longer to process contents.

"Fireflies are known to synchronize their flashes, birds flock together in impressive complex patterns. But we still know very little about the specific dynamics of human collective behavior and behaviors” says IMC researcher Riccardo Fusaroli, who conducted the study in collaboration with colleagues at UC Merced, UW Madison and Northeastern university.

The US Presidential Debates

The research team chose to investigate the 2012 US presidential debates as an example of a massive media event, and Twitter as the perfect means to observe and quantify collective human behavior in real time. The researchers were particularly interested in comparing how people reacted to the presidential candidates’ conversational strategies and the content of their utterances.

“We saw very clear patterns in the data: Interrupting your opponent led to a steep increase in people tweeting about you, within seconds.” says RF “And people kept tightly entrained to this conversational dynamics, reacting to them almost in real time. The actual contents of the debates took much longer to impact public attention, but had the potential to keep people discussing it even when the candidates had already moved on.” 

More work is being performed on the emotional and political content of the tweets to better understand the exact mechanisms of human collective entrainment.

The study was published on PLoS One and combines cognitive, social and computer science approaches, well-representing what IMC makes possible: a Danish centered international and radically interdisciplinary study with potential real-world applications.